Of course some women are flattered by catcalls, but that doesn’t make it ok: A response to Paris Lees
Paris Lees has been busily trying to erase decades of feminist work over at Vice as of late, first promoting prostitution as something sexy, empowered women do, and now encouraging men to catcall women.
Lees, who says she used to be “a boy” (i.e. she is a trans woman) and is “a total attention junkie” is tickled at being “sexually objectified and treated like a piece of meat.”
She enjoys being “eye-fucked on the escalator” and claims that “eye-fuck” is an “age-old mating call.”
Lees admits she doesn’t represent all women but what she fails to do is connect her feelings of flattery to a larger social context. She individualizes her own experience and refuses to look beyond her own personal thrill at properly performing femininity, which prevents her from understanding why she might feel thrilled by catcalls and why that might not be good.
I’m willing to bet that Lees isn’t alone in her feeling. I bet there are plenty of women who have, from time to time, felt flattered by a look or compliment in the street. There are many more who have felt threatened, unsafe, and angered by being yelled at out the window of a passing truck or stared down on public transit. Whatever Lees feelings and experiences are is fine — what isn’t “fine” is to write an entire article about how great being objectified makes her feel without acknowledging that these feelings aren’t about “mating calls” so much as they are about patriarchy.
But maybe Lees doesn’t have a problem with patriarchy. Must be nice.
The reason men “eye-fuck” women or holler at them on the street is not because of a deep, biological drive to reproduce, but because of a learned sense of entitlement, as noted by The Guardian’s Ellie Mae O’Hagan, who points out to Lees that studies “suggest sexual violence is ‘to an extent rooted in ideologies of male sexual entitlement.'”
Also, catcalling is not a historically universal practice. Women manage to reproduce just fine without being “eye-fucked” and even without being raped! (Another practice sexist dumb-dumbs/evolutionary biologists like to chalk up to “age-old” biological drives.)
Lees feels thrilled at being stared at or wolf-whistled on the street because she’s thrilled at properly performing femininity. Women are supposed to be looked at. They are supposed to exist for male pleasure. We are pretty things. That is, we learn, our purpose.
I have no idea what Lees’ history is, but she reminds me a little bit of myself when I was 18 and just starting to get male attention. I was thrilled too. But I was also 18 and I had zero ability to analyze my own feelings of flattery within a larger context. That thrill is quickly muddied by rape culture and by the realization that male attention doesn’t equal respect. In fact, that particular kind of male attention offers little more than a crushing sense powerlessness and insignificance when you learn that many of those men “eye-fucking” you in the bar or on the street see you as disposable or worthless. GUESS WHY? Yep. Objectification and sexualization are completely intertwined with a patriarchal culture that teaches men that women aren’t full human beings and that violence and degradation is sexy. Girls and women learn to please men because they aren’t offered real access to real power and so they think pleasing men is the ticket.
O’Hagen puts it this way:
One of the ways patriarchy sustains itself is by convincing women that their worth is determined by the approval of men along a strict set of terms. Getting wolf-whistled at or whatever is a small confirmation that a woman is meeting the terms patriarchy demands of her.
Lees “struggle[s] to see any real connection between rape and the guy who wolf-whistled at [her]” and I’m not surprised. She seems to struggle to make any real connections between the performance of femininity, learned male entitlement, and the oppression of women.
That she feels flattered instead of threatened is a privilege that doesn’t extend to all women and a privilege that Lees is apparently unaware of (again, must be nice).
The connection between street heckling and rape isn’t always as linear as Lees wants it to be. She writes:
As Nichi puts it: “I think it’s a misnomer to draw a continuum between street heckling and the paltry rape conviction rate. Street hecklers don’t go on to become rapists any more than readers of lads mags do.”
Partly that’s because the problem with street heckling isn’t *just* rape — it’s about the ways in which masculinity and femininity hold up gender hierarchies that empower men and disempower and dehumanize women. Often that disempowerment and dehumanization leads to male violence — sexual or otherwise. Sometimes it simply teaches women they are useless if not sexually desired.
Lees writes that her “problem with the debate around street attention” is that “it’s part of a culture that infantilises women and teaches them to be constantly afraid.” No, Paris. That’s not how this works. Women learn to be constantly afraid because they grow up as women in a patriarchal world. Patriarchy teaches us we are always at risk of being attacked or raped. Victim-blaming (which is something feminists fight against) tells women not to go out alone at night and rape culture tells us we aren’t safe in our homes instead of telling men that they are not entitled to access and abuse the bodies of women and girls.
“I wasn’t brought up that way,” Lees says. “And I don’t feel frightened when some spunky dude comes and talks to me. I hate this idea that all men are rapists-in-waiting and that all women are victims-in-waiting.”
ALL TOGETHER NOW: MUST BE NICE, PARIS. It must be nice to have been brought up completely oblivious to the ways in which girls learn to be afraid. It must be nice that you feel safe and unthreatened by men — many women don’t share your privilege. It must be nice to have been raised free from fear.
Lees writes: “I’m a feminist because I don’t like men telling me how to think or behave or experience the world and I don’t like women doing it, either.”
It’s unsurprising that Paris doesn’t get the point of feminism. She doesn’t understand why it exists and she can’t relate to it. She thinks feminism is about her and her “freedom” to do whatever she likes. But maybe feminism isn’t about you, Paris? Maybe it’s not about your freedom to successfully perform femininity and your freedom to enjoy catcalls, just as it isn’t about women’s “freedom” to self-objectify.
Feminism is about addressing systems of power that oppress women, globally. It isn’t about you feeling cute. It’s about the women and girls who are raped and abused and murdered every single day, around the world, because they are female. It’s about the fact that most of us do feel afraid, despite the fact that you “weren’t raised that way.” It’s about the fact that performing femininity, even though some of us may have learned to enjoy parts of it, isn’t a privilege in a patriarchy.
You have the right to speak for yourself, Paris. Everyone does. You have the right to feel however you like about your experiences, too. But you’re right — you don’t represent all women. And you certainly don’t represent feminism.